MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations [Books V-VIII]

Book V

  • When men have an intense affection for an art, they choose neither to eat nor sleep, but to perfect the art that they care for. The art of all men ought to be virtue.
  • It is easy to cast away every vexing impression, and to immediately become tranquil.
  • If an act or thought is good, do not think that it is unworthy of you.
  • All of the elements that comprise a man will return to the elements of the universe upon death.
  • Display sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with what happens and with few things, and benevolence. These qualities can always be exhibited regardless of the circumstances.
  • When one has done a service for another, one either sets it down as a favor conferred and expects a favor in return, knows that he has bestowed a favor but does not expect anything in return, or does not even know that he has bestowed a favor on another but proceeds to another good act. This third man is the good man; he is like a vine which seeks nothing more after it has produced its proper fruit. A man ought to perform good acts for the sake of the performance itself.
  • That which happens to a man has been prescribed by the universe in accordance with his destiny. We ought to accept the prescriptions of the universe as we accept the prescriptions of a doctor. Like the prescriptions of a doctor, some of the prescriptions of the universe are disagreeable, but we ought to accept them with the hope that they will lead to the health, prosperity, and felicity of the universe. Zeus would not have brought anything upon a man that is not useful for the whole [in other words, the good of a part can be sacrificed for the good of the whole; yet Marcus would argue that that which is good for the part is good for the whole; therefore, we mistake what is actually good for the part. Everything that happens is good for the whole, and thus good for the part, and thus good for the whole. This argument depends upon the assumption that everything is being directed towards a prosperous and felicitous universe. If the universe is governed merely by chance, then the universe may be heading towards destruction and disharmony rather than perfection]. It is right to be content with what happens because it happens for you; it was prescribed according to your destiny.
  • Do not be discontent if you fail in doing everything according to right principles, but be content if the majority of your thoughts and deeds are consistent with man’s nature, and return to those right principles when you fail.
  • When one considers that everything is worthless and short-lived and contemptible, one can take solace in the principles that nothing happens which is not conformable to nature and that nothing can compel one to act contrary to virtue.
  • One who has luxury, wealth, and fame has no place of ease because of the abundance.
  • Nothing is created or destroyed. There is only change from one part of the universe to another.
  • One’s habitual thoughts form one’s character; for the soul is dyed by thoughts. Dye your soul with the following thought: where a man can live, a man can live well.
  • External things cannot move the soul. The soul moves itself alone.
  • All hindrances to the performance of a good act can be changed into assistances to the performance of a good act.
  • Revere that which is best, that which directs all things – the Intellect.
  • That which does no harm to the state, does no harm to the individual.
  • Often think about the transitory nature of everything. Consider the boundless oblivion of the past and the future. One is a fool to be vexed by these things, seeing as they can only trouble him for a very short time.
  • Think of the very small part you are of the universe.
  • Do not allow your soul to be moved by pleasure or pain. Do not allow your soul to contribute to the sensation the opinion of either good or bad.
  • Live with the gods by being constantly content with what happens.
  • Anger does no good for anyone.
  • Recall how many things you have been able to endure, how many beautiful things you have seen, how many pleasures and pains you have despised, and how many ill-minded people you have been kind to.
  • Soon you will be dust, or an empty name which is merely a sound. Thus, all that remains is to venerate the gods, do good to men, practice self-restraint, and calmly await the end.
  • Give help to all according to your ability and their fitness.
  • Good fortune is a good disposition of the soul, good emotions, and good actions.

“Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.”

“Consider this which is near to thee, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear.”

“Soon, very soon, thou wilt be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is sound and echo, and the things which are much valued in life are empty and rotten and trifling.”

“Let thy desire find its termination.”

In the fifth book, Marcus argues that everything happens for the sake of the health, prosperity, and felicity of the universe. When I read this argument, I remembered the conversation between Ivan and Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The conversation concerned the existence of pain and innocent suffering in the world. Ivan relates several events where children were tortured and killed. He concedes that the suffering of these innocent children might be necessary for the salvation of the world, but Ivan does not consider the health, prosperity, and felicity of the universe to be worthy of the suffering of those innocent children. I imagine Ivan would ask Marcus Aurelius: “granted that everything happens is conducive to universal felicity, is this harmony worth the suffering of innocent children?”

That question is very difficult to answer. If Marcus says that the harmony of the universe is worthy of the pain that happens in the world because it is in accordance with its nature, then Ivan would likely reply that Marcus does not even have the right to answer this question. Only the sufferers have the right to forgive their torturers. Even if they forgive their tormentors, Ivan will not forgive God for allowing the suffering to exist, and no one has a right to tell Ivan that he must forgive transgressors. Marcus would then reply that Ivan is not acting and thinking according to nature, to reason. Ivan would reply that he is acting in accordance with reason; and the argument would end there.

In this book, Marcus also asserts that if the State is not harmed, then the citizen is not harmed. This type of reasoning is very dangerous, in my opinion. For example, the health of the State might require the death of one of its innocent citizens in order to preserve the safety of its other members. Perhaps the citizen has a rare and very contagious disease. Killing the sick citizen does not harm the State, and thus does not harm the citizen who is killed. On the other hand, Marcus might argue that killing an innocent citizen does harm the State. It seems to turn upon the relationship between the State and its citizens. The bond is so strong between them that any harm to a citizen might be a harm to the State.

Marcus states that one ought to let one’s desire find its termination. This is a primary Buddhist tenet – i.e. to rid oneself of desire; for desire is the cause of all suffering.

Book VI

  • Everything ought to be done well, including suffering and dying.
  • The best way to avenge yourself is not to become like the wrong doer.
  • It is easier for one to behave rightly when one habitually practices right behavior.
  • Outward appearance often perverts the reason, deluding it into believing that things are not worthless when they actually are.
  • Life is like breath. As we draw in breath and then give it back, we receive life and then give it up.
  • Fame and life itself is not worth valuing. One ought to value one’s own mind and revere the order of the universe.
  • Virtue does not change like the elements of the world. It is constant.
  • Men are strange because they desire to be praised by posterity, by those people whom they will never see.
  • If anything is possible for man and conformable to his nature, it can be attained by you too.
  • One who stubbornly abides in ignorance is injured. One ought to cheerfully change if shown that one does not think or act rightly.
  • Alexander the Great and his slave met the same end.
  • If a man does wrong, teach him his error; do not become angry with him. Anger helps no one.
  • Look upon the things of the world as you look upon the things of dreams.
  • The present is a point in eternity. All things are produced from the universal ruling power. There is one source for all.
  • Often observe the connection of all things and their relation to one another.
  • One ought to regard only those things within one’s power to be good or bad. External things beyond our control, such as misfortune and loss of some good, are neither good nor bad – they merely are.
  • All things are working to one end. Some things possess knowledge of the end, while others contribute to the pursuit of the end without knowing what they do. All things cooperate towards this end in different manners, but all things are necessary, even things that hinder and oppose the end.
  • The gods have forethought, and have determined the destiny of things to be well; for it would not advantage them to create disorder and chaos. But if there are no gods, then one ought to act in accordance with one’s nature because Reason demands it.
  • Whatever happens for a man is beneficial to the whole.
  • All kinds of men of all kinds of pursuits of all nations have died. The only thing worth a great deal in this universe is to live a life in accordance with truth and justice, and to be cheerfully disposed, even to unjust men.
  • Nothing delights so much as the contemplation of examples of virtues.
  • One who loves fame considers the activity of others to be one’s own good. One who loves pleasures considers sensations to be one’s own good. One who is wise considers one’s own acts to be one’s own good.
  • It is within your power to have no opinion about a thing.

“The best way to avenge thyself is not to become like the wrong doer.”

“Death is a cessation of the impressions through the senses, and of the pulling of the strings which move the appetites, and of the discursive movements of the thoughts, and of the service to the flesh.”

“Reverence the gods, and help men.”

“Present time is a point in eternity.”

“The continual sight of the same things and the uniformity make the spectacle wearisome, so it is in the whole of life; for all things above, below, are the same and from the same.”

“One thing here is worth a great deal, to pass thy life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men.”

“How soon will time cover all things, and how many it has covered already.”

In the sixth book, Marcus asserts that the best way to avenge oneself is not to become like the wrong doer. Having read many texts about the theme of revenge – see The Iliad, Oresteia, Hamlet, etc. – there have been many examples of revenge, most of them bloody. Marcus’ argument against violent revenge is similar to the Christian notion of turning the other cheek.

Another interesting insight made by Marcus in this book is that only the stubborn man who refuses to acknowledge his error and correct his way of thinking and behaving is injured. The good man is he who cheerfully changes his perceptions and behaviors when he is shown that his past behaviors and thoughts were wrong. I think that it is important to avoid rigidity in one’s beliefs. One ought to be willing to change an opinion or particular way of behaving if it is proven to be wrong – i.e. not in accordance with the truth or nature of a rational animal. Today, too many people stubbornly refuse to admit that they have erred, and obstinately continue to pursue a life of ignorance and error. Pride is one of the most difficult emotions to master.

Marcus advises one to look upon the things of the world as one looks upon the stuff of dreams. The motif of life being as a dream recurs throughout the history of literature and philosophy. I believe that there is both a sense of optimism and a sense of pessimism that can be found in this notion. One might be sad that one’s life is as brief and fragile as a dream, or one might consider the wonderful possibilities that are realized in dreams and be hopeful that life contains these extraordinary possibilities as well.

Marcus argues that all things are produced from one source – the universal ruling principle. He exhorts the reader to frequently observe the connection of all things and the relation to one another. One theory of modern science is that of the Big Bang. This theory propounds that all the matter of the universe was condensed into one point, and then dispersed very rapidly. In this way, everything in the universe is derived from one source. The same applies to the tenets of the major monotheistic faiths of the modern age. What ought one to do with this knowledge? Well, Marcus advises that everything has its own unique duty according to its nature. The nature of man as a rational, social animal is to perform rational and social acts.

One of the most profitable exercises that Marcus suggests to the reader in this book is to contemplate the examples of virtues one sees around oneself. For example, when one considers the benevolence, generosity, and altruism of others, one is often delighted and motivated to perform virtuous actions too.

Book VII

  • There is nothing new. All things are familiar and transitory.
  • It is within your power to have an opinion or have no opinion.
  • A man is worth as much as the things about which he busies himself are worth.
  • Whatsoever is done ought to be directed towards that which is useful and suitable to society.
  • There is one universe made up of all things, one pervading substance, one law, and one intelligence.
  • One ought to delight in beneficence for its own sake, not be beneficent because it is proper to do so.
  • Let my body be struck. My body will complain if it so chooses, but my soul is not injured if it does not think that what has happened is evil.
  • No matter what happens, one ought to be good; just as an emerald must be an emerald regardless of what happens.
  • Nothing happens without change; it is the most suitable thing to the universal nature. Thus, change of one’s own self is necessary and not to be feared or challenged.
  • Soon you will forget all things, and soon all things will forget you.
  • Nature will change everything continuously so that the world will be ever new.
  • Think of what you possess, not what you do not possess.
  • The rational agent is content with merely doing what is just.
  • Stop allowing the appetites of your bodies to pull the strings of your soul.
  • Pain cannot make the mind worse if the mind does not judge whether the pain is good or evil, but necessary in accordance with the nature of things.
  • He quotes Plato: man ought not to consider whether an action will lead to death but whether the action is just or unjust.
  • One ought to consider how one can best live the time allotted to him.
  • Thoughts of the stars and the ever changing elements purge the mind of earthly concerns.
  • View the activities of men from a high place. Look down upon their assemblies, marriages, births, deaths, courts of law, etc.
  • Consider the vicissitudes of past nations, and you will foresee the fate of future nations.
  • The rational animal ought not to yield to the senses and appetites because both are animalistic.
  • Resolve to be good in everything you do.
  • Pain has limits; it is neither intolerable nor everlasting.
  • Very little is necessary for living a happy life.
  • The perfect moral character is one that lives every day as the last, and is neither violent, nor torpid, nor hypocritical.
  • It is impossible to fly from other’s badness; it is impossible to fly from one’s own badness.
  • It is sufficient to have done a good act for another. Only fools expect something in return or acknowledgement that they have bestowed a good on another.

“Every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself.”

“The memory of everything is soon overwhelmed in time.”

“Think not so much of what thou hast not as of what thou hast: but of the things which thou hast select the best, and then reflect how eagerly they would have been sought, if thou hadst them not.”

In the seventh book, Marcus writes that the worth of every individual is correlated to the worth of those objects about which he concerns himself. For example, the worth of a man who busies himself about trivial things such as fame is trivial himself, according to Marcus. Whether Marcus is correct in his assumption, I believe that this notion is useful in determining what activities one decides to pursue. This notion can be used as a thought experiment. One may ask whether a particular activity is worthy of one’s exertion. One would likely avoid numerous frivolities if one were to merely consider the inherent worth in activities before pursuing them.

Marcus advises the reader to think of what he possesses rather than the things which he does not possess.  This is a useful exercise. Too often we are saddened by the contemplation of “goods” which we do not possess, that we forget all the goods that we do possess; and therefore we lose the opportunity for gratitude and the happy contemplation of our goods.

Towards the end of this book, Marcus notes that it is impossible to avoid the badness of other men, but it is possible to avoid the badness of one’s own self. Therefore, we not to be vexed by the badness of other men since it is beyond our control. In other words, that which is past remedy ought to be past care. This is an important habit to develop because trying to accomplish the impossible only leads to frustration. One ought to only concern oneself with things within one’s own power.

Book VIII

  • Marcus has found happiness in neither syllogisms, nor wealth, nor reputation, nor anywhere else but in doing what nature requires.
  • Soon we all will die and everything will be gone. There is nothing more to seek than to do the work of a rational being.
  • It is within your power to be superior to pain and pleasure, to be superior to the love of fame, and not to be vexed by ungrateful and offensive people.
  • Consider the opinions one has of good and bad, and you will realize that one is compelled to act in the way one does because of one’s opinions.
  • Everything exists for some purpose. Your purpose is not to enjoy pleasure.
  • Consider the body, what type of thing it is, and what type of thing it becomes when it has grown old and diseased.
  • Remember that one day you will die. While it is within your power, be good.
  • It is within your power to purge your soul of badness, desire, and vexation.
  • Consider the death of nations and of a whole race of people. Consider what care they took to leave a successor.
  • Nothing can hinder your power to act justly except your own soul.
  • Receive wealth without arrogance, and be ready to lose it.
  • Neither the future nor the past can pain you, only the present which is but a moment. Chide yourself if you cannot withstand a moment of pain.
  • Receive what happens with a cheerful disposition.
  • What is it to you if posterity utters the sound of your name, or has an opinion about you?
  • An external thing does not cause you pain, but your judgment about the external thing causes you pain. It is within your power to change your judgment. To act is better than to complain.
  • Throw away a bitter cucumber. Turn aside from briars in the road. But do not ask why there are such things in the world.
  • Men may curse you, cut you, and kill you, but they cannot prevent your soul from remaining pure, wise, sober, and just.
  • Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them or bear with them.

“Men will do the same things, even though thou burst.”

Marcus makes a very insightful remark about human nature in the eighth book. He writes that even if one were to tear oneself apart, most other men would continue doing the same things. This notion illustrates that the nature of men is something nearly immutable. Despite all the philosophic writings from time immemorial to now, mankind is generally driven about by the same appetites and desires that it possessed hundreds of thousands of years ago. When I read this paragraph, I immediately thought of Jesus, monks who self-immolated, and suicide bombers. Despite these persons’ actions, most other men continue to do the same things, uninfluenced by the actions of these men.

Marcus also writes about the nature of pain, and one’s ability to tolerate pain. He advises the reader to consider that neither the future nor the past can pain a man, but only the present. A man ought to chide himself if he cannot withstand a moment of pain. Furthermore, pain can only affect the body; it cannot affect the soul unless the soul judges pain to be an evil. When Marcus writes that pain cannot affect the soul, he means that pain cannot make the nature of the soul worse; in other words, pain cannot compel the soul to behave unjustly. Marcus would argue that the soul of a man who is afflicted with hunger can either choose to endure the hunger justly or commit an unjust theft in order to satisfy his appetite and alleviate the pain. As an emperor of Rome, I am almost certain that Marcus never experienced extreme hunger pains, but this does not mean that one ought to discount his argument. Hopefully, no one who is reading this will ever be faced with such a dilemma, but I think that it is useful and uplifting to believe that one can maintain one’s own morals and virtues even in the face of tremendous hardships and adversities.

In regards to things that cause pain and discomfort, Marcus exhorts the reader not to ask why there are such things in the world, seeing as everything that happens and exists is necessary. In my opinion, it is difficult not to question whether the universe would be better if some things did not exist. I think that a high degree of self-mastery is required to truly accept all that happens with a cheerful disposition, and to believe that everything exists for a purpose – that purpose being the health, prosperity, and felicity of the universe.

Meditations

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14 thoughts on “MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations [Books V-VIII]”

    1. Thanks very much for your kind words and for sharing it with your readers. I hope that you will enjoy reading along and commenting on some of these books. I am always interested in learning the opinions other intelligent people have of these texts.

  1. Thank you for liking a mama bear who now feels very small and child like in the face of one of the masters (in my opinion) of philosophy. I’ve read some of Marcus’ work before but over the years his words have been lost to me. His thought, however, were not, and I appear to have carried his philosophies with me. I have to say I do agree with your view on ‘what is good for the state is good for the citizen’; perhaps when there was a senate full of actual ‘common people’ that cod have been true, when the state Was the citizen therefore what is good for one must be good for the other. In our era, though, I feel this to be a dangerous ethic, one that could be easily disguised as ‘patriotism ‘ and used against the citizens almost like a blackmail of sorts.

    I loved reading your review of these treatises, I shall be back for more 🙂

    1. Yes, it seems like the ancient Greek and Roman writers preferred the interests of the State over the interests of the citizens. Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius would certainly not condone the revolutionary tones of Locke and Rousseau. The interest of the individual seems to be a relatively new concept.

      Thanks for reading!

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